Mobile

These are rugged times, here are the best rugged phones for them

Rugged phones have gone from oddball to mainstream, here's what to look for if you buy one.

CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

The modern phone does everything -- including shatter, break and leak. No matter how elaborate or expensive a phone you buy, the manufacturer generally assumes you'll take it upon yourself to immediately swaddle it in an aftermarket case so it can survive daily use. There's no other consumer electronic product that leaves the factory so not ready for the real world. That's where rugged phones come in.

Rugged phones once only appealed to first responders, preppers and "technochondriacs" but a new breed of them that cut a svelte figure are broadening their appeal. Research and Markets projects rugged phone sales to grow at a compound annual rate of 6.7% from 2020 to 2027, compared to just 3.7% sales growth for all smartphones from 2022 to 2025, according to IDC

The fine print of the iPhone 13 warranty throws cold water on the water resistance touted in the marketing copy.

Apple/CNET

The iPhone 13 has inspired a cottage industry of angst for the daring few who carry it without a case, but that remains a daring proposition for a four-figure device that touts durability "front and center and edge to edge" yet offers no warranty protection for "liquid damage" nor any formal drop or impact rating like truly rugged phones do. Its arch-rival Samsung Galaxy S21 proved itself not-so-hardy in its own ways. Cue the real rugged phones.

Read more: Best waterproof camera for shooting underwater video

Now playing: Watch this: Never break a phone again
7:09

Best rugged phones

In my opinion the Samsung XCover Pro and the Kyocera DuraSport 5G best combine serious ruggedness with fashionable slimness. The Cat S52 is thinner but it's only available in the US as a gray-market device. The bigger Cat S62 Pro offers a powerful FLIR temperature sensor. The diminutive UniHertz AtomXL writes a new page in the rugged-phone stylebook, while the Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G joins the venerable Sonim XP8 as no-apologies devices aimed straight at the first responder and industrial markets.

Samsung XCover Pro

The Samsung XCover Pro looks like any other modern phone. - until you drop it and it doesn't shatter. 

Samsung

Ruggedness and water-resistance

All these phones laugh at being dropped on a hard floor, dunked in water or even immersed in liquid cleaner -- that last one being a neat trick at a time when we're disinfecting everything. The ruggedness credential for most phones is Military Standard 810-G, which encompasses a lot of specifications but is commonly described as the ability to withstand a 1.5-meter (4.9-foot) drop without damage. All the phones in our list are rated either 810-G or the newer 810-H.

A phone's resistance to foreign matter is signified by an IP code, typically IP68. The 6 in IP68 means the phone is closed to dust and grit, while the 8 means the phone is protected against water immersion "under conditions ... agreed between the manufacturer and user," according to the International Electrotechnical Commission, which oversees the standard. That means not all IP68 ratings are the same. It can denote immersion resistance ranging from 5 feet for 30 minutes for the Samsung XCover Pro, 2 meters for 30 minutes with the Kyocera DuraSport 5G, or 5 feet for 35 minutes with the Cat S62 Pro. Read the tech specs before you buy, but all the phones on our list have some level of IP68 protection. The Sonim XP8 and Cat S62 Pro achieve a high enough IP rating that they can also resist direct sprays of liquid.

Kyocera DuraSport 5G

The Kyocera DuraSport 5G may emanate from a lesser known brand but has entered the top ranks in terms of being rugged and stylish, with Ultra Wideband 5G capability on Verizon. 

Kyocera

Note that some of the phones in this roundup have a tethered cap that seals their USB-C jack. These caps are tedious in daily use and complicate placing the phone in a desktop charging stand unless you have the Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G, which supports Qi wireless charging pad, allowing the port door to stay closed while charging.

Push to Talk

With fires, power outages, floods and other unusual events becoming more usual, many people are joining local neighborhood response groups or CERT teams, which rely on radio-style communications but not necessarily with actual radios. Push to Talk over cellular apps such as Zello allow a phone to work like a walkie-talkie with anyone else running the same app. Sprint and Verizon offer similar services as plan options. 

Push to Talk apps

So many ways to have a walkie-talkie on your phone. PTToC apps for both consumers, enterprises and first responders have proliferated in recent years with the expansion of 4G LTE that allows them to behave very much like an actual radio, but with far more smarts.

Brian Cooley/CNET

All of the phones on our list except the Cat S52 have at least one dedicated button that can be set to Push to Talk, and the Kyocera DuraForce Ultra 5G has three programmable buttons. All of the phones can map a button to Zello, the most popular PTT platform. That gives you far better walkie-talkie ergonomics than pressing a virtual talk button on the screen.

Push to Talk button on Samsung XCover Pro

Most of the phones in our roundup have at least one assignable hardware button that can be mapped to several functions such as Push to Talk, using the camera or sending out an emergency beacon alert via an app.

Brian Cooley/CNET

The Unihertz AtomXL is also a "real" radio. It's able to communicate with the FCC Part 90 radios, often known as "business radios," with the use of a small external antenna that ships with the phone. Technically, the AtomXL can also communicate with GMRS and FRS radios, which are often carried by neighborhood volunteers, as well as with some ham radios, but it's not FCC approved to do so. In any of these modes, it has 0.5- and 1.5-watt output power levels.

Unihertz Atom XL is also a real radio

The Unihertz Atom XL can communicate with FRS and GMRS radios, as well as with UHF ham radios, though such use is pending US approval by the FCC.

Brian Cooley/CNET

The Sonim XP8 also has true radio capability via an optional Xpand module that turns it into a transceiver on the 900MHz ISM band. That isn't likely familiar or useful to the average person, though. Even with this Xpand module the XP8 will not be compatible with FRS and GMRS radios you may own for family use.

Dual SIMs

Several phones on this list support dual SIMs, giving them another kind of ruggedness: network resiliency. If you're willing to spend the money, having two carriers activated on a phone can mean the difference between having service or not during a crisis. Setting up a pair of technically distinct carriers on a phone can substantially reduce your odds of being offline when networks are jammed or damaged. For example, you might activate both Verizon and AT&T on a dual-SIM phone. It may seem tempting to get a virtual three-network phone by activating Google Fi on the other SIM since it taps into both T-Mobile and US Cellular, but Fi only juggles those two networks on "Made for Fi" phones, which currently only include Google Pixels and Moto G phones -- none that are rugged.

Samsung XCover Pro dual SIM and removable battery

The Samsung XCover Pro features both dual physical SIM support as well as a swappable battery.

Brian Cooley/CNET

A couple of the phones on our list are available with LTE Band 14 support so they can use AT&T FirstNet, a special mobile network that can prioritize you and preempt other network users at times of extreme network load, like during natural disasters. You can't just sign up for FirstNet by having a compatible phone, however; you need to also be sponsored via a participating emergency services organization you're involved with.

Front-facing speakers

Most of the phones we carry today make a big sacrifice in the name of design: Their speakers aren't aimed at our ears, but aim sideways out of the phone. A couple of the rugged phones on our list rectify that with front-facing speakers that blow away the meek volume levels on mainstream phones. The Kyocera DuraSport 5G is the only slim rugged phone that aims its audio optimally.

Sonim XP8 front speakers

The loudest speakers of any phone in this group are the front-facing ones on the Sonim XP8.

Brian Cooley/CNET

This is useful for PTT apps, especially when you're in a hectic or outdoor location. But note my pet peeve: Speakerphone mode is way overused today, so blare sparingly. We don't want to hear your conversation or FaceTime. Get some earbuds when a speakerphone isn't mission-critical.

The Sonim XP8 has a long history with professional first responders and has developed the screw-down Secure Audio Connector to provide audio and power to a wide range of speakers, mics and combinations of the two

Replaceable batteries

Remember when many phones had these? They made charge anxiety less of an issue. Just pop in a spare battery and be back at 100% charge in seconds. The Samsung XCover Pro and Sonim XP8 have swappable batteries as part of their ready-for-anything ethos. Even the fastest charge can't compete with this simple solution, though the Kyocera DuraSport 5G is compatible with an optional fast charging AC adapter that uses Power Deliver 3.0 technology at 27 watts. 

No more apologies for cameras and screens

Rugged phones used to treat camera and display quality as elective, but these new models leave little lacking when it comes to these features. They may not have the number of cameras found on flagship phones like the iPhone 12 Pro Max or the Samsung Galaxy S21, but the cameras they do have are ample in megapixels and take advantage of the Google image processing built into Android. The gallery of comparative shots below is remarkable mostly in how unremarkable the photos are: They're barely different from the typical snapshot taken with a flagship phone. 

All the phones on this list use toughened glass. The CAT phones have the latest Corning Gorilla Glass 6, which is more resistant to repeated and higher drops than its more commonly found predecessor.

Thermal imaging

The CAT S62 Pro takes imaging a step further with an integrated FLIR Lepton thermal sensor which can measure from -4 to 752 degrees Fahrenheit with a high degree of sensitivity. If you've been temperature scanned when entering a building lately, you know that the pandemic has made temperature scanning mainstream. Even after the pandemic subsides, a FLIR sensor is a tool with dozens of uses.

The CAT S62 Pro's FLIR Lepton sensor is designed for use in phones, allowing it to fully integrate into the phone's body unlike the earlier FLIR sensor in the CAT S61, which required a large top protrusion.

CAT S61 vs CAT S62

The CAT S62 Pro now fully integrates its FLIR sensor in the form factor of the phone, versus the protuberance that housed it in the earlier CAT 61.

CAT

There's an interesting form of augmented reality in the CAT S62 Pro, achieved by blending the photo and temperature imagery via on-screen controls. Once you get the hang of it, it's a useful feature for more accurate visual indexing of a temperature to spot in the scene that can be tricky to discern in full FLIR mode.

CAT S62 FLIR modes

By varying the image blend from both the camera and FLIR temperature sensor, you can achieve a form of augmented reality.

CAT

Size and weight

While some of the newest rugged phones are almost indistinguishable from standard phones, some are still bulky and proud of it. A few stand out in the stack below, but most are similar to standard phones.

Rugged phones incognito

You can tell a couple of these are rugged phones, but the rest blend in with normal ones. From top to bottom: Unihertz Atom XL, Cat S52, Sonim XP8. Samsung XCover Pro, Samsung Galaxy S8 with cover, Pixel 3A with cover, Kyocera DuraForce Pro 2, Cat S61.

Brian Cooley/CNET

This chart shows the weight and feature differences between the phones. Overall, the Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro and Cat S52 are standouts in thin design with light, rugged construction. And remember: These don't need a cover.


Samsung XCover ProKyocera DuraSport 5GCat S62 ProSonim XP8 Cat S52Unihertz Atom XL

Price

$500 (unlocked)

$580 (Verizon)

$649

$648 (Verizon)

$330 (gray market)

$330

Programmable buttons

2

1

1

2

1

1

Dual SIM

Yes

No

Yes (varies by region)

Yes

Yes

Y

Swappable battery

Yes

No

No

Yes

No

No

Front speaker

No

Yes

No

Yes

No

No (but loud rear reflector)

Display

6.3-inch, 2,340x1,080-pixel, Gorilla Glass 5

6.1-inch, 2,400x1,080-pixel, Gorilla Glass 6

5.7-inch, 2,160x1,080-pixel, Gorilla Glass 6  

5-inch, 1,920x1,080-pixel, Gorilla Glass 3  

5.7-inch, 1,440x720 Gorilla Glass 6                                          

4-inch 1136x640 Gorilla Glass3

Thickness

9.9mm

9.9mm

11.7mm

18mm

9.7mm

17.5mm

Weight

6.3 oz.

6.5 oz.

8.7 oz.

11.8 oz.

7.4 oz.

8.5 oz.

Superpower

Sweet spot for a new generation of tough phones

5G UWB, Wi-Fi RTT positioning, ANT Plus connectivity

FLIR temperature sensor                                       

Feature-laden and tough as nails

Thinnest rugged phone available

Ultra compact and can function as a walkie-talkie

Other parlor tricks

The Kyocera DuraSport 5G, being the newest phone in this roundup, offers a couple of technologies that many phone users aren't yet familiar with. Wi-Fi RTT (Round Trip Time) uses Wi-Fi to determine the phone's location by precisely measuring the round trip flight time of a ping to a nearby RTT compatible router. It's accurate to within 3 to 6 feet and particularly useful indoors where GPS location may be coarse or nonexistent. ANT Plus is emerging as a key technology to connect wearables, fitness devices and mobiles to each other, but it's an Android thing: If you have a rugged Android phone and an Apple Watch, ANT Plus won't connect the two.

Is rugged right for you?

If you want the latest in advanced video capture, computational photography or a laptop-class CPU, these phones aren't quite ready to replace your current device. But if you're tired of breaking phones, regularly use a PTT app such as Zello, or are big on outdoor adventures or public service volunteer work, think beyond the usual suspects next time you buy a phone. These rugged phones make the category exciting again.